​An ambassador to the Vatican is visiting Rome’s most ancient churches this Lent

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An ambassador to the Vatican is visiting Rome’s most ancient churches this Lent

Britain’s ambassador to the Vatican is visiting 40 of Rome’s most ancient churches this year, retracing the pilgrimage routes Catholics have walked for centuries as part of the Roman Station Church liturgical tradition.

Ambassador Sally Axworthy said in an interview with CNA that the experience “has been a great way to explore Rome’s early Christian heritage.”

“The churches were built on the sites of the burial grounds of martyrs, so this whole journey is like a journey into early Christianity,” Ambassador Axworthy said.

The Lenten station church pilgrimage in Rome dates back to the early fourth century and originally included daily papal processions in which people prayed the Litany of the Saints on the way to offer Mass at the burial site of the early Christian martyr assigned to that day.

San Clemente, today’s #stationchurch, is built on 3 levels: a 1st century house church (and later Mithraic temple); a 4th century basilica with the tomb of St Cyril (of & Methodius fame); and a 12th century basilica. Unique building showing history of Christian worship in Rome. pic.twitter.com/YIwxCjibfv

— Sally Axworthy (@SallyAxworthy) March 1, 2021

Pope St. Gregory the Great fixed the order of the original 25 church stations in the sixth century, which were later expanded, before the practice waned in the 14th century.

Walking to the station churches today has brought the ambassador from the Ash Wednesday station church, the Basilica of Santa Sabina — built in the year 432 A.D. and once home to St. Thomas Aquinas — to the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, which contains the long-venerated relics of Christ’s cross brought to Rome by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine.

Today’s #stationchurch is S. Susanna on Quirinal hill. Started c. 280 in homes of Caius and Gabinus, latter the father of Susanna, who was martyred for refusing to marry Emperor Diocletian’s son. American national church in Rome until 2017. Now private church of Cistercian nuns. pic.twitter.com/rLvk2sBozD

— Sally Axworthy (@SallyAxworthy) March 13, 2021

“As an ambassador to the Holy See, you often go to events in churches, so I know a lot of the churches, but I’ve been surprised by how many are new to me as well,” Axworthy said.

“And I have discovered some great churches, like today’s was Santa Pudenziana, which I hadn’t actually been to, but it is the oldest place of worship in Rome. St. Peter is said to have celebrated the Eucharist there, and they still have a bit of the table on which he celebrated the Eucharist, so that is very exciting, and a very exciting church to discover.”

The ambassador said that her favorite churches are those in which “you get a sense of the antiquity of the place,” such as St. George in the Velabrum and the Papal Basilica of St. Lawrence outside the Walls.

The early Christian liturgical stational church tradition has had a bit of an Anglophonic revival in the last three decades, spearheaded by the Pontifical North American College, which in recent years offered a 7 a.m. Mass in English at the station churches each day of Lent.

In its modern form, the station church itinerary brings pilgrims to just over 40 churches between Ash Wednesday and the end of the Easter Octave, with repeated visits to some of the major and minor basilicas.

Ss. Cosma e Damiano is today’s very beautiful #stationchurch. Originally probably an ancient Roman library, it became a church in 527 and was dedicated to Syrian Christian twin martyrs. In the 17th century the floor level was raised 7m which is why the mosaics feel so close. pic.twitter.com/lF0HTAXgTy

— Sally Axworthy (@SallyAxworthy) March 11, 2021

Axworthy’s days are packed with meetings, speeches, and events, so she usually visits the churches either before or after work.

“Although it is becoming a bit of an obsession, I try not to let it interfere too much with my working days,” she said.

“Luckily in Rome, there hasn’t been too much rain, so it makes for a lovely walk every morning or evening to go see a different church,” she added.

Axworthy has shared much of her Roman Station Church experience on social media, posting photos and facts about the church of each particular day.

“I have found as ambassador that my social media followers are very interested in everything about life in Rome. And often if I tweet about a work meeting that they are obviously not so excited about that, but they do like to hear about what goes on in the Vatican and the life of the Holy See, really,” she said.

“I know in the U.K. … people are suffering lockdown, so they are not allowed to go out very much, and so I thought, well, this is something that I can do. I can share what I’ve been doing with the station churches and hopefully, that will provide a little glimmer of hope every day or something of interest when people are really suffering some quite difficult circumstances.”

Today’s #stationchurch is St Mark’s. First built in 336 by Pope Mark, rebuilt in 833, it became the church of the republic of Venice. Sadly closed when I got there this morning – that plus the rain and the strike in adjoining Piazza di Venezia did not make for a great outing! pic.twitter.com/9LmS6fTm2X

— Sally Axworthy (@SallyAxworthy) March 8, 2021

While the latest round of coronavirus restrictions in Rome, introduced on March 15, has forced Axworthy to suspend some of her station church visits on their designated day, she plans to visit the churches that she missed as soon as Rome’s “red-zone” restrictions have lifted.

She will end her term as the British ambassador to the Holy See later this year after five years of service in Rome.

Looking back, Axworthy said that one significant occasion for her was St. John Henry Newman’s canonization.

“In our bilateral relationship, the highlight was the canonization of St. John Henry Newman, which was a kind of remarkable moment,” she said.

“It was the first British saint for 40 years. We hadn’t had a canonization for a very long time. Newman’s a figure who spent half his life as an Anglican and half of it as a Catholic, so he is very much a bridge for the two traditions. And for me personally, it meant getting to know some of this writings.”

“I read a lot about him, and he is a very inspirational figure, so just learning about Newman, but also the celebrations themselves. The Prince of Wales came and he made a very powerful speech, so that was a great highlight in our bilateral relationship.”

Today’s #stationchurch is San Clemente, a favourite of many including my late husband. It is closed because of covid so I could only take pictures of the outside, but I will share some others have taken of the remarkable interior. pic.twitter.com/Dnl0r6ERM2

— Sally Axworthy (@SallyAxworthy) March 1, 2021

Before entering the diplomatic service, Axworthy studied modern history at Oxford University, in the city where Newman taught before his conversion to Catholicism.

“I think Rome is famous for the Roman Empire and for the Renaissance, but this bit — the history of early Christianity — is really worth exploring too,” she said.

“And, for me, it has been very nice in my last few months to be doing this and to be discovering another side of Rome. And I certainly intend to pack as much in before I go as I can.”